“Plantations” are still here, even on my undergrad degree from up north

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Greg Markley

My name, home state, type of degree, the college president’s name and signature and the chairman of the Board of Regents are all on my sheepskin from Rhode Island College. The state’s full name is there, too: State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

         What? “Plantations” still part of the name in liberal Rhode Island? And in 1980? How about still in 2020, in the state where Puritan minister Roger Williams founded Providence Plantations, the colony? And all this when Southerners are still blamed for all of the slavery in America since the 1600s?

Here’s good news: With 53%-47% support, voters opted on Nov. 3 to remove the words “and Providence Plantations,” which were part of the state’s legal title since May 4, 1776. The vote was 230,812 approving the name change, with 206,008 opposed. Ten years ago, the only previous time the voters got a say, Ocean State residents rejected it by more than 3 to 1: at 250,466 to 71,162.

How did this this finally happen, after futile legislative debate since 1975 and the 2010 rejection? And why did so many voters NOT want a change to help the state’s image? The primary reason for the change is the racial injustices we have had and the impact of Black Lives Matter. The second reason is that the extent of slavery in RI is higher than earlier known, so the term “Plantations” offends more now because its ugly side is revealed.

“I think Rhode Island has turned a page,” said state Rep. Anastasia Williams, who had helped draw attention to the question — and to Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade. “It means Rhode Islanders have joined forces and embraced the fact that we are, one. Period,” she told the Providence Journal’s Tom Mooney.

Rhode Island has 59,000 African Americans, which is 5.4% of the state’s population. African Americans make up 13.4% of the U.S. population. People who oppose jettisoning the word “Plantations” from all state buildings and documents say it won’t have a big impact upon anyone’s life — not even in the African-American community.

“If you go back and look at the actual history behind the word, it’s not necessarily the same as what was going on down South,” said Richard Lee, a retired educator from Jamestown. “I’ve always enjoyed it because being a true Rhode Islander, I’ve always said, ‘Hey, we’re the smallest state with the largest name,’ so we kind of had that as kind of a talking point when it comes to Rhode Island history,” he told the Providence Journal.

Yes, it is a small state, but one with a very large slave enterprise in the 1700s and early 1800s. Paul Davis of the Providence Journal wrote a series of articles in 2006 about the slave trade in Rhode Island and especially Newport. His wide research found that the sloops and ships Endeavor, Success and Wheel of Fortune hosted slave captains who made more than 1,000 voyages to Africa from 1725 to 1807.

“They chained their human cargo and forced more than 100,000 men, women and children into slavery in the West Indies, Havana and the American colonies,” Davis wrote in Slavers and the Slave Trade in Newport. “The traffic was so lucrative that nearly half the ships that sailed to Africa did so after 1787 — the year Rhode Island outlawed the trade.”

Coastal cities Bristol and Narragansett, too, had slave transport and sale operations, as did Providence. Davis emphasized, “Rum fueled the business. The colony had nearly 30 distilleries where molasses was boiled into rum. Rhode Island ships carried barrels of it to buy African slaves, who were then traded for more molasses in the West Indies which was returned to Rhode Island.” The term “Plantations” referred to a group of settlements, properties that did not resemble Southern plantations in intent.

While Rhode Islanders were voting Nov. 3 to eliminate references to “plantations” on government documents and buildings, Mississippians voted 2-1 to replace the Confederate battle flag with a magnolia-centric design. The magnolia design has a circle of 20 stars representing Mississippi, America’s 20th state.

The official nickname for Mississippi is The Magnolia State. The magnolia is also Mississippi’s state flower and state tree. The state nickname and flower are featured on Mississippi quarters. The Clarion Ledger noted that a larger five-point star at the top is a nod to Native American tribes. The MS Department of Archives and History noted that the magnolia blossom is “a symbol long-used to represent our state and the hospitality of our citizens.”

Installing new flags is worth it for Mississippi to right past wrongs and gain tourists. Getting new stationery is a small price for erasing “Plantations” in public places in Rhode Island. But if you want to rob me of my politically-incorrect 1980 college degree, you will do it with cold, dead hands.

Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 21 years, on and off. He has master’s degrees in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. He was U.S. Army Europe Journalist of the Year (1993) for articles from Croatia, Germany and Macedonia.

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